Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik
Forest Hills Jewish Center
Forest Hills, New York
YIZKOR - YOM KIPPUR
As Jews have done for more than a thousand years on this most sacred of days, we now pause in the midst of our day-long penitential rites to recite Yizkor. This applied practice of conscious memory is not, in and of itself, a penitential act, nor is it intended as such. But the fundamentally sober and somber nature of Yom Kippur lends itself to remembrances of things past, including of our loved ones who are no longer with us. And so we recite these memorial prayers.
To dramatically understate what is painfully obvious, this particular Yom Kippur’s recitation of Yizkor has been made enormously more complicated by the tragedy that has recently befallen our city, and our country. Although we suffered no immediate losses in our congregational family- that is to say, no members of The Forest Hills Jewish Center that I know of were killed- we are, like just about every other grouping of people here in New York, full of what are being called “one degree of separation” stories. Most of us know at least one person who was lost on that awful day. Some of us lost extended family, and within the Center family itself, we have more than our share of stories of the person who overslept, or whose train was late, or who chose not to go into work on September 11, or who was standing there just minutes before the first tower was struck. And so, in order to make some painful progress in our own griefwork, we must admit to ourselves, and understand, and embrace the fact that today, when we rise to recite Yizkor, we are doing much more than remembering our departed loved ones, although surely that is difficult enough. We are also giving expression to our individual and collective grief as New Yorkers, a grief that is still, even two weeks later, terribly difficult to bear.
The enormity of what happened at the World Trade Center is not my subject per se this morning. It’s too big, too unwieldy, and we’re too close to the date of its occurrence. We haven’t yet had a realistic opportunity to gain any useful perspective on its larger significance, other than to realize that a truly awful thing has happened to us, and to the world.
What I would like to do this morning, very much in the context of our recitation of Yizkor, is focus in for a few moments on what is for me an enormously moving and significant sidebar to that horrible event: the people in the twin towers who, after the planes hit and before the buildings collapsed, called their loved ones to say goodbye.
One day sometime very soon after September 11- I can’t recall exactly which day, but I think it was the first Sunday after- the New York Times published a collection of those cellphone conversations. Some of the people called to tell their families that they were OK, not to worry, just to reassure them. Rabbi Saposh took one of those calls at his school from a parent who wanted to reassure her children, but subsequently never made it out.
Most of the calls, though, had a common thread, something like “There’s been a terrible explosion here, I’m not sure I’m going to make it, and I wanted you to know that I love you.” Of all that I have read and heard these past few weeks, nothing moved me more than those conversations. I was staggered by the presence of mind of those people, inspired by their courage, and heartened by their instincts. What are you to do when you think your death is imminent? What wouldyou do? What should you do? To whom do you want to speak, and what exactly do you want to say when words are at a premium, and so is time?
L’havdil elef alfei havdalot…. To differentiate many thousands of times over…. I want to share with you an experience I had this summer, well before September 11, when I was at camp. I had intended to share it with you as part of my Yizkor sermon well before the current crisis, but now, the whole experience resonates with me with an even greater and more macabre intensity. Let me state at the outset that in no way do I equate my experience with the events of the past few weeks. That’s why I said l’havdil. I meant it. I’m alive, and those people are gone. But you’ll soon understand why this experience continues to haunt me, even more so now, in the context of what has come to pass in New York.
As many of you know, I spent the month of August working as an advisor at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, where some thirty of our congregational children are campers, and about ten of our older youth are staff members. It was a demanding job both emotionally and physically, and by the time camp was drawing to a close, I was, I readily admit, quite ready to come home.
The day before camp was to end, in the midst of yet another crisis that demanded immediate attention, I was sitting in a meeting with an entire division’s worth of children and staff when I started to feel ill. Actually, “odd” would be a better way to describe it. I felt odd. I knew that what I was feeling wasn’t normal, but I just couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong, and I didn’t know quite what to do. I couldn’t ignore it. It was getting worse by the minute. But I was also reluctant to “make a scene” by asking someone to get me help. I vaguely remember wondering “is this what a heart attack feels like,” as it got increasingly difficult to breathe, and I started to sweat profusely. The last thing I remember was the person sitting next to me asking me if I was okay, and after that I’m missing a few minutes.
Before I go any further, let me assure you that I’m fine. There was no heart involvement, I’ve been thoroughly checked out, and I’m fine. Really. Whatever it was that happened was most likely idiosyncratic, owing to a particular set of circumstances, and unlikely to happen again. Had I known what was going on when it was happening, I might have been able to forestall the worst of what was to come. But I didn’t know. I didn’t recognize the symptoms.
And so it was that the next thing that I remember after those few lost minutes was being laid out on a bench with an IV in my arm and an oxygen mask over my face, and a whole slew of infirmary personnel and paramedics leaning over me and asking me questions. I remember asking one of them what was wrong with me, and his answering “We’re looking for a blood pressure consistent with human life.” As you can imagine, that did not make me feel any better. My blood pressure had taken a pretty serious nosedive- something like 80 over 45- and the medical people were also concerned about a possible heart attack. I was told that I was being taken to the hospital, and not to argue. I remember Robin saying that, and thinking that it was funny. Not like I was in any position to argue. I felt much too lousy to put up any kind of a fuss.
I tell you all this because in that brief time between when I became conscious again and when I was taken to the hospital, there were all kinds of people gathered around me. In fact, because I had the bad taste to get sick in front of a whole division of camp, it didn’t take too long for the word to get around, and literally half the camp was standing silently on a nearby road taking it all in. I scared a lot of people that day. There must have been a few hundred people there, but the truth is that the only people I was at all focused on were Robin, Hillel and Leora, who were all standing just a few feet from me, holding my hand, understandably and appropriately terrified. And I remember thinking to myself, is this the last time I’m going to see them?
I had no idea then what was wrong. I didn’t know if I was in the early stages of a heart attack, or whatever. All I knew was that I felt like I had been run over by a truck, I was looking at my family- thank God my younger kids were elsewhere, and people had the good sense not to bring them to where I was- I was looking at my family and thinking to myself, what do I want to say to them in case I don’t see them again? Of course, between having an oxygen mask pulled over my mouth and feeling so poorly, I wasn’t doing a whole lot of talking. But my brain was racing at a thousand miles an hour.
I came home from camp the next day with that question haunting me. Though I knew that I was physically OK- both the doctors in the emergency room and my own physician told me so- I was, emotionally, quite not OK. I was shaken to the core, and very unsure of my footing. Being who and what I am, I searched in my mind for some frame of reference in tradition, something I had learned, something that might offer me guidance, but I must admit that it was not a totally gratifying search. The Talmud wasn’t much into this touchy-feely kind of thinking. The best that I could come up with was a fascinating passage in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, that I was already familiar with; a list of the questions that a person is asked b’sha’ah shemachnisin adam l’din… when he/she is brought before God in final judgment.
Listen carefully. Here is the list. Did you conduct yourself honestly in business? Did you set times for the study of Torah? Did you have children? (Well, at least I’m OK there!) Did you hope for salvation? Did you explore the finer details of wisdom (pilpalta b’chochma)? And then there’s a question that’s so hard to translate, even though I understand what it means. Heivanta davar mitoch davar? Did you appreciate and understand more complex truths from simpler ones? The passage ends by saying that even if you can answer all of these affirmatively, still- if you don’t have fear of God, you will not do well in final judgment. And if you do, you will. Comforting, isn’t it…
What I have slowly come to realize from my very frightening experience this summer, and what I realized anew from reading the transcripts of those heart-rending telephone calls from the World Trade Center, is actually a revisionist read on this classic Talmudic text.
In those moments when we are truly challenged with our lives, when life itself is called into jeopardy, you don’t ask yourself such a complicated set of questions. God might ask them when we’re on the other side, so to speak, but those questions aren’t what you think about when you think you might be looking at your own imminent death. And truly, even if you should be inclined to do so, you might not have the opportunity. It isn’t always given to us. Truly, I had no inkling when I woke up that morning of August 19 in camp that my day would be any different from the usual, and certainly, those poor people in the Trade Center had no reason to suspect that they had gone to work for the last time. Life can be taken from us with terrifying suddenness. We‘re not always gifted with the time to reflect. And I, personally, have to admit to some doubt that God will be too very concerned with whether or not we delved into the finer points of Torah wisdom, or even if we longed for salvation.
So allow me, if you will, to re-translate that tricky phrase that I translated a little awkwardly before. The way I understand it now, Heivanta davar mitoch davar means, did you get it? Did you understand what was truly important in your life, and what was less important? Did you separate the wheat from the chaff?
What I realized ultimately was that the answer to the question that I posed earlier was quite simple. All I really wanted to say to my family when I felt so ill and thought I might be dying was exactly what those doomed people in the World Trade Center said to their loved ones when their lives were so tragically, and truly, in jeopardy. They just wanted to say “I love you-” to make sure that their husbands and wives and children and parents knew that, and to hear it back from them as well. That’s it… The rest, we might say, would just be so much midrash, so much commentary. If you can die secure in the love of the people who matter most to you, you’re not really dying alone. The love and respect of your family is a pretty darn good indicator of the life that you have led. If your family loves and respects you, the chances are pretty good that you’ve led a life to be proud of.
So, here we are, remembering those members of our families that we have loved so dearly and who are no longer with us, and grieving, each in our own way, for thousands of people in our city whom we didn’t know, but with whom we have been made to become acquainted in the most horrible and brutal of ways. Some Yom Kippur this one is; some way to begin a new year…
Let me conclude by sharing with you a thought that has brought me some solace as I struggled with this sermon. Saying yizkor is a powerful testimony to what Shir Hashirim taught us many years ago. Azza kamavet ahavah. Love is stronger and more powerful than death. Neither great waters, great fires, or even great violence can extinguish it. Death can’t extinguish it; just another truth that terrorists will never have the capacity to absorb. But we do have that capacity. We remember parents, we remember children, we remember brothers and sisters, husbands and wives… we will also remember those whom we didn’t even know, but who were a part of our New York family, and have been taken from us. We will remember. And as long as we do, our love for them all will endure.